Friday 16 January 2015

C is for colors...and cookies!

As of a few weeks ago, I've been living gluten-free for 7 years. 7 years!! That's a long time! A lot has changed in the gluten-free world since then. I've previously mentioned how my own approach to baking has changed and evolved over that time - why I became less and less interested in duplicating the properties of gluten, per se, but have instead been increasingly drawn towards finding the inherent properties special to our ingredients, and applying them in ways that make the best foods. (There is a difference, especially in the context of bread - something I will elaborate on very soon, with a loaf bread recipe!) I've already shown you a bit of how I've been applying this...but it goes beyond just the flours and baking techniques. I promised I'd keep you updated on the bigger picture - so here's one of the pieces I've been working on these past several months. 

It all started with a cookie.

A repertoire of chocolate frostings, white fluffy buttercream, pearly royal icing, and lemon glaze will go a long way towards covering most things that require decoration of the sugary persuasion. But a little over a year ago, I got the urge to make sugar cookies for Christmas - meaning colors would be required. So festive! So pretty! I was excited to have an occasion to get a bit fancy. Now, at this point I should mention that I don't use synthetic food coloring in my kitchen. Surely there would be suitable alternatives, though...right? Yet, the (horrendously expensive) natural colors obtained from a certain (notoriously overpriced) natural food store chain turned out to be a bit...underwhelming. 

Sure, they were pretty. But the initially-bright colors faded noticeably as the icing dried, and because of the chemical nature of these vegetable pigments, the color range is very limited by what kind of recipe you're adding it to (they are very pH sensitive, among other things). Neither of these things were surprising, from a chemistry perspective - it was something else that was still bothering me.

Maybe it was frustration with hearing GF baking referred to as "imitation" or "a substitute for the real thing" that spurred me to become more critical of my choice of ingredients. Maybe it was annoyance at seeing the egregious misuse of the term "artisanal" on the packaging of one too many clearly-mass-produced food products. (Artisanal tea bags? Really? What is that even supposed to mean??) In any case, when I really thought about it, I realized it wasn't just about the results of the colors themselves, or even the expense. I was bothered by the idea of buying food coloring.

I cared about more than just what the product is made from. I realized what I really wanted was the aspect of craft. I guess that's become a bit trendy these days, but I don't think that makes it any less important. Artisanship, in the actual definition of the word - a combination of skill, knowledge, and artistry - gives the end product meaning beyond just the sum of its ingredients, much more than a vague "all-natural." I could do better than a bottle of cabbage juice concentrate - both in the sense of better results, and in the sense of fitting much better with that from-scratch philosophy. 

So, that's what I did. Using actual foods and some science, I've been working on making my icings just as special as the cookies. No recipe today, but here are some more pictures of the process: 

At first, I had two colors...then three...

...Then four...and more!
A few favorites from this year's Christmas cookies: Hedgehogs, owls, a goose, and a moose!

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